If we were to look at each tennis generation as a player with a count of Major titles—either pro, amateur, or Open Era Grand Slams—by far the greatest would be the generation born from 1934 to 1938, mainly on account of two players: Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver. This generation was, in many ways, the generation that brought tennis from the amateur/pro split into the modern Open Era in 1968.
But tennis didn’t begin with this generation. Before focusing further on the First Generation of the Open Era, let’s take a brief look at what came before…
Generations before the Open Era
The oldest player in terms of birth year to win a Slam was John Hartley, born in 1849 – he won the third Wimbledon in 1879; the first Wimbledon in 1877 belongs to Spencer Gore, born a year later in 1850. This makes the first tennis generation of the entirety of its history being those players born in 1849-53, with possibly older players playing but none winning a major. Given that there were at least seventeen generations before Rosewall’s and Laver’s, this makes the current youngest generation–those players born 1994-98 like Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric, and Alexander Zverev–the 30th five-year generation in tennis history. We are just starting to see players of the 31st generation, born in 1999-2003, appear deep in the rankings. As of this writing, the highest ranked player of Gen. 31 is No. 757, Felix Auger Aliassime, born in August of 2000.
The main point here is that while modern tennis can be seen to have begun with the Open Era in 1968, it was actually past the mid-point of tennis history as a whole. Or to put that chronologically, we’re in the 48th year of the Open Era, which began in the 92nd year of Wimbledon, thus the Open Era began almost exactly two-thirds of the way into tennis history as a whole.
I will not attempt to detail every generation, but thought it worthwhile to list some of the better players as they arrange within pre-Open Era generations, with their Slam title count—including Amateur and Pro—in parentheses:
1849-53: John Hartley (2), Spencer Gore (1)
1854-58: Frank Hadow (1)
1859-63: William Renshaw (7), Richard Sears (7), Andre Vacherot (4), Henry Slocum (2), Ernest Renshaw (1)
1864-68: Arthur Gore (3)
1869-73: William Larned (7), Reginald Doherty (4), Paul Aymé (4), Robert Wrenn (4), Wilfred Baddeley (3), Oliver Campbell (3)
1874-78: Lawrence Doherty (6), Norman Brookes (3), Malcolm Whitman (3)
1879-83: Anthony Wilding (9), Max Decugis (8), Maurice Germot (3)
1884-88: Rodney Heath (2)
1889-93: Bill Tilden (15), Maurice McLoughlin (2), R Norris Williams (2), Robert Lindley Murray (2), Pat O’Hara Wood (2)
1894-98: Jean Borotra (4), William Johnston (3), Gerald Patterson (3), James Anderson (3)
1899-1903: Henri Cochet (11)
1904-08: Frank Crawford (6), Rene Lacoste (7)
1909-13: Fred Perry (10), Ellsworth Vines (8), Hans Nusslein (6), Adrian Quist (3), Gottfried von Cramm (2)
1914-18: Don Budge (10), Bobby Riggs (6), Frank Parker (4), John Bromwich (2), Don McNeill (2)
1919-23: Jack Kramer (5), Pancho Segura (4), Jaroslav Drobný (3), Vic Seixas (2), Ted Schroeder (2)
1924-28: Pancho Gonzales (17), Frank Sedgman (7), Budge Patty (2), Dick Savitt (2)
1929-33: Tony Trabert (7), Neale Fraser (3), Mervyn Rose (2), Nicola Pietrangeli (2)
I tried to account for every Slam winner, although if I missed someone I apologize to their grand- or great-grandchildren.
Top 10 Greatest Players Before the Open Era
1. Pancho Gonzales
2. Bill Tilden
3. Don Budge
4. Fred Perry
5. William Renshaw
6. William Larned
7. Ellsworth Vines
8. Anthony Wilding
9. Henri Cochet
10. Jack Kramer
Honorable Mentions: Laurence Doherty, Bobby Riggs, Frank Sedgman, Reggie Doherty, Pancho Segura, Jack Crawford, Tony Trabert, Rene Lacoste, Hans Nusslein, Jean Borotra, Bill Johnston, Gottfried Von Cramm, Jaroslav Drobný, Vic Seixas, and many others.
This is a hard list to compile, because it spans about a hundred years. But it is relatively easy to rank Gonzales and Tilden as No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, both being among the very best players in tennis history – on the short list of GOAT candidates. Tilden had a remarkable career that spanned three decades. He didn’t win his first Major until he was 27 years old, and won his last in his early 40s, making the 1945 US Pro semifinal at the age of 52. Pancho Gonzales remains one of the most underappreciated greats in the history of the game, perhaps largely because historical memory tends to be shallow and only notices “two Grand Slams” in his tally. But Gonzales also won 12 Pro Slams and 3 of the 4 Tournament of Champions, which are consider Majors by some – so he has a total of 17 Major titles, tied with Roger Federer and behind only Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver. He was, by a significant margin, the greatest player of the 1950s before Rosewall took over in the later part of the decade.
Don Budge is perhaps best known as the only player other than Rod Laver to win the Calendar Slam. While he won all of his 10 Majors during a relatively short six-year span, he was as dominant in the late 30s as any player has ever been over a few-years span. Perry and Renshaw round out the Top 5, and then it becomes tricky to rank players, as the context of the game was so different and we can’t look at tennis records of, say, the 30s and 40s with the same criteria as we can the Open Era. But regardless, the above 10 are probably the 10 greatest players before the Open Era, with a handful of honorable mentions fleshing out the list.
Up next, we’ll look at the great generation of players, born between 1934 and 1938, who dominated tennis from the late 50s into the early 70s, and the dawn of the Open Era.
Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): boston_public_library / killingtime2 / boston_public_library